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‘They Have Slowly Poisoned The Public School System' — School Board Calls For Charter Funding Reform

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Public Schools board members approved a resolution Wednesday that calls for the state’s General Assembly to significantly reform the way it funds charter schools.

Eight board members approved the resolution; board member Sala Udin was absent.

The PPS resolution supports two soon-to-be introduced pieces of legislation and proposals from Gov. Tom Wolf that call for reforms including setting a flat tuition rate for charter schools, distributing special education funding through a funding formula and stopping the creation of new cyber charter schools.

Currently, publicly funded charter schools operate independent from the city school district and receive a student’s tuition money from the student’s home district. There is no set tuition rate for charter schools. The funding is calculated based what a school district pays to educate its own students, rather than the cost to educate a child in the charter school, the resolution argues.

There is a significant range of spending across the state. PPS board members say they’re giving charter schools more money than is needed to operate programs.  

“Because the tuition rate calculations are based on the school district’s expenses, they create wide discrepancies in the amount of tuition paid by different districts for the same charter school education and result in drastic overpayments to charter schools,” the resolution states.

Board President Sylvia Wilson said those discrepancies “pull critical resources from district students, resulting in surplus funding to charter schools.”

Several board members called the funding system unfair and broken.

Board member Pam Harbin said the move wasn’t about choice.

“Parents are welcome to choose a charter school if they feel that’s a better setting for their child or a better education setting for their child. But to make it fair we have to make sure that we are not sending money to charter schools that they get to spend for anything that they want and not spend it on the students,” she said.

In an interview with WESA on Wednesday, district solicitor Ira Weiss called charter schools a “money-making system.” He said it costs more to educate students in district-run schools because of unionized teacher pay and overhead costs to run multiple schools.

Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law was established in 1997 and hasn’t been significantly changed since.

“It was written by a group of people with Governor [Tom] Ridge whose purpose was to destroy public education. They have slowly poisoned the public school system and bled it dry,” Weiss said.

In December, district administrators said the school board raised taxes partly due to growing costs outside of the district’s control, including charter spending. Charter costs account for about 15 percent of the district’s 2020 budget.

Ana Meyers, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said in a statement that blaming charter students for the district’s financial problems was unfair.

“Thousands of students in Pittsburgh have left their assigned district school seeking a better education in a public charter school. I would encourage the Pittsburgh Public School Board to work toward addressing the issues facing their existing students rather than attempting to use the legislature to stifle competition,” Meyers said.

The resolution approved Wednesday was largely based on language drafted by the Pennsylvania School Board Association. The organization asked districts across the state to approve resolutions supporting charter reform legislation.

The PPS resolution supports two bills that call for cost-saving measures similar to those made in Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent budget proposal. Wolf asked for $100 million in basic education funding while cutting funding to charter schools. He said the charter system is “in desperate need of reform” and that he intends to “close the loopholes” and “level the playing field”.

Bills with identical language will soon be introduced in the House by State Rep. Joe Ciresi, a Montgomery County Democrat, and in the Senate by Sen. Jim Brewster, a McKeesport Democrat, and Sen. Lindsey Williams, a West View Democrat.

The bills would require a statewide, data-driven cyber charter school tuition rate and would stop the creation of new cyber charter schools “until the existing schools improve performance.”

The bills would also require that charter schools use the Special Education Fair Funding Formula that public schools use to determine the cost to serve students. While the state revised its special education formula in 2014, that formula does not apply to charters who instead receive a flat rate.

According to the resolution, the way charters are funded for special education is “unfair becaue it is also based on the special education expenditures of the school district rather than the charter school.”

PPS Chief Operation Officer Ron Joseph said Wednesday that PPS pays charter schools $17,800 for a student without a disability and $39,500 for a student with a disability. He said the formula is not an accurate measure of the cost of educating students, because it takes into account debt payments the district makes and other costs outside of the classroom.

He said the cost-saving measures in the two bills would save the district about $14 million.